The Weekender: Fake News Isn’t Our Only News Problem

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This week on the show we talked about the recent issues around fake news, and whether these fake news industries that have arisen, websites that create posts that are sold as news but are barely related to actual news happening anywhere, had an effect on the U.S. Election. Fakes news is obviously a problem, but as we pointed out on the show, the problem has been significantly affected by the fact that few people seem to know what real news is anymore. That’s not a problem created by Russian oligarchs, alt-right provocateurs, or unemployed post-grads, it’s being caused because there are times when our local news stations don’t know what  real news is.

To wit, we just went through Black Friday, the annual splurge-a-thon that was once an industry term in retail meaning the point in the year where stores started making a profit, or “going into the black.” It was significant because it’s also the day following the American Thanksgiving, and once the official start to the Christmas shopping season, but that has since moved up to the day after Halloween, and the Thanksgiving timing means little in Canada because we started Black Friday too because we were missing out on the fun and frenzy.

But the reasons and the realities mean very little because it’s all about the shopping, and the deals people are getting, at least that’s what I gathered from the news coverage. People love a deal, and the news loves telling us about people who love deals and chasing deals. In other non-news this time of year are the regular stories about how busy the malls are and the dearth of parking at these outlets. Breaking news! Malls are busy during Christmas, and a lot of people drive to get there. This happens every year. We get this same reporting, and in so much as I’d like to say the reporters are doing it in their sleep, I’m not entirely sure they aren’t.

“Breaking news” is another expression that gets overplayed, both on U.S. and Canadian cable news. Under ordinary circumstances, it’s supposed to be for news that’s happening in the moment, like let’s say a press conference where Justin Trudeau announces a new cabinet appointment, or government initiative. As Trudeau’s making that announcement, or immediately afterwards, it’s breaking news, but as so frequently happens, many networks, especially CNN, label news that’s literally more than half-a-day old, as breaking news. The term “breaking news” then becomes merely a way to get your attention, or is interchangeable with “top story.”

And too often the top story is something ridiculous, or inconsequential. Last Friday on the local CTV Kitchener station for instance, the news opened with what a nice spring-like day it was across the region. Oh, what a lovely day, they opined, one last swing on the golf course or lunch on the patio “before going south on vacation,” they said. What world are they living in? What kind of life are they painting when inferring that you can just take the day off to play golf or have an extra long lunch because it was sunny and warm in November? It’s not the average working person’s life that’s for sure.

I was watching CP24 earlier this year, it was the first stretch of really nice spring weather and the weather man, while giving the forecast, told views that it was going to be such a nice day that they should go and ask their boss for the afternoon off so that they can go out an enjoy a beer on patio somewhere. Sure, I thought, go ask your boss if you can take the rest of the day off to drink in the warm sunshine, and if he or she didn’t fire you then and there the first round’s on me.

The point is that the local news is often painting a picture of our world from the point of view of privilege. Lucky are the few that can drop work for a golf game or an afternoon of social drinking on a weekday. Luckier still are the ones that enjoy 9 to 5 jobs Monday to Friday, like CTV weatherman Anwar Knight who shows up Monday morning on CTV News Channel hailing what a great weekend he had, and then spending the next three days counting down to the next weekend before lamenting on Friday his gratitude that the weekend is here. He stands in front of a screen a couple of hours a day and gives the public information that no one expects to be accurate, yet he’s the one put upon?

In real life there are a lot of people that have to work on the weekend, they have to work overnight, or they have to work on holidays. I saw a lot of posts on Reddit of people in restaurant and retail sectors who had to work on the American holiday weekend being told by customers that they were sorry that they had to work the holiday. There’s no irony there that those people are working the holiday because of other people looking to shop or eat out on the holiday, nor was there irony in the news coverage of the Blue Water Bridge workers strike. Here, border workers for the Public Service Alliance of Canada were trying to save their benefits and their jobs, but the news demanded to know the effect on Black Friday cross-border shoppers, many of whom would likely be taking the day off from work to participate.

In the mind of our local news everyone has disposable income, flexibility of schedule, and is so winter-phobic that it borders on the superstitious; it wouldn’t surprise me one day to see anchors burn effigies on the solstice as tribute to the sun god and spare us a so-called “wicked winter.” CTV News Kitchener asked Monday in a special feature if you’re “shovel ready”? Like we live in the fictional world of Game of Thrones where winter lasts years and brings with it ice zombies bent on our doom. The damn shovel just sits in your garage or your shed waiting for the first snow fall, doesn’t it? In what way does one have to be “shovel ready”?

These are kind of minor gripes in the grand scheme of things though, but it is a sign of just how much our news misses the target. The bigger concern is false equivalency and so-called “balance.” This has been a long time concern, but one cast in stark relief when the presidential election came down to a former first lady/senator/secretary of state and a businessman/reality TV star, but it’s been going on for a while. Every time the news discussed climate change, it and has to dig up one of five climate change deniers with media credentials out of the demand for something called “balance.” Forget the fact that 99.9 per cent of people in the field say it’s real and human caused, Ross McKitrick has a counter point. When four out of five dentists recommend Crest, the fifth isn’t suggesting you brush your teeth with chocolate fudge, they just like another toothpaste.

Sadly for news and the public’s right to know, the environment isn’t the only area the virtue of being contrary is the only credential you need to be taken seriously, The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, for example, is taken as a supreme authority on all matters of how the government spends money even though they only have five members. Yes, five, and that comes directly from the source. CTF has thousands of supporters, and that’s all they are. They have about as much authority over how the CTF is run as the people that “Like” CTF on Facebook do, and that’s how the “members” of CTF like it. After all, do you want a structure that’s “bogged down in meetings, procedures and elections,” or one that’s “lean, performance-based and nimble?”

Yes, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation talks that way about itself, a description that hardly sounds like the grassroots organization that they bill themselves as. Despite that though, their still on the speed dial of every mainstream media organization, as they were this past week when Toronto Mayor John Tory talked about looking at tolls on the city’s major highways as a way of paying for transit and infrastructure. Christine Van Geyn appeared on CP24 suggesting that there was still fat to cut at city hall, and tolls were just a tax by a different name. Since Stephen LeDrew was interviewing her, no one was there to ask a serious question, like where’s the fat? Or what other alternatives are there for the City of Toronto to raise revenues? If the Canadian Taxpayers Federation were running city all, and there was no more fat to cut, what would they do?

If Van Geyn’s talking points weren’t enough to be persuasive, she was joined in studio by Doug Ford, the former city councillor who presently serves in no elected office, and has no appointed political position at the local, provincial or federal level. True, Ford has a new book to promote, but what does that have to do with practical discussion of actual policy? Nothing, of course, the point is that Ford throws bombs, LeDrew likes to feel the burn, and nothing is really solved because that’s the point of the show, and it’s all being done under the cover of balance, or “getting all the facts.” That’s not news, that’s showbiz, and CP24 and others have to ask themselves: are they giving us the news, or are they selling us a lifestyle?

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